»  National Review Online Diary

  January 2010

Get a government job (1)     Among the many citizens who have heeded my call to GET A GOVERNMENT JOB! is … Mrs. Derbyshire. Laid off several months ago from her job in retail sales, she is now deep in Civil Service test prep study guides, currently this one. Sample question:

Suppose that a person you are interviewing becomes angry at some of the questions you have asked, calls you meddlesome and nosy, and states that she will not answer those questions.

Of the following, which is the BEST action for you to take?
A.  Explain the reasons the questions are asked and the importance of the answers.
B.  Inform the interviewee that you are only doing your job and advise her that she should answer your questions or leave the office.
C.  Report to your supervisor what the interviewee called you and refuse to continue the interview.
D.  End the interview and tell the interviewee she will not be serviced by your department.

If it was me doing the interviewing, the sentence "Don't let the door hit you on the way out" would occur at some point in the situation. Plainly I'm not cut out for Civil Service work: the correct answer is A.

I have advised Mrs. D that while it would be nice if she were to land a government job, there is a strategy that she, a person of minoritude, can employ for much higher return on investment. She should form a cabal with all the other minority test-takers to deliberately score low on the test, then sue for disparate impact. That way she'll not only get a job from which no-one would ever dare to fire her, she would get a big fat cash settlement too.

When I suggested this, the lady sighed and rolled her eyes. She does that a lot.

Get a government job (2)     Consider the following proposition, gentle reader. For nine years — day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out, for nine blessed years you will be payed an excellent salary — currently $100,049 per annum. The salary comes with full health benefits and a handsome pension — $82,000 if you were to retire today, which you are not about to do, as the pension increases by $1,700 every year you stay on the job, You also accumulate sick days, and get paid in cash for half of them when you eventually retire.

Sweet deal, huh? What kind of work are you doing for all that extravagance? Nothing. Zip, zilch, nada, rien, nichts, nichevo, nothing. Fact, you can run a private law business and manage $8m worth of inherited property while on the "job." And all that boodle we're paying you is from the public fisc, which can never go broke! Is this a great country, or what?

Please explain to me again the rationale for letting government workers form labor unions.

Then explain to me why nonmilitary government personnel are allowed to vote, and what on earth anyone thinks they are going to vote for other than more goodies for themselves, paid for by the rest of us.

Why Johnny can't write     I've been nagging my son for years about his handwriting. It's dreadful: the letters badly formed, spacing irregular, words not properly seated on the line.

A few days ago I had to help him with some homework arising from a team project. Four or five of his classmates, all boys, had contributed to the project. Their handwiting was, in every case, just as atrocious as my son's.

Well, it's some comfort to know it's a general problem. And I guess there is no longer much value to good handwriting as a life skill.

For further consolation, Chinese friends tell me things are far worse in the Middle Kingdom, where instead of having a mere 26 letters to remember, you have five or six thousand squiggles. (Well, it's not quite that bad. The squiggles are made up of a few dozen basic elements … It's bad enough, though.) Quite well-educated Chinese twentysomethings have trouble writing, I am told, having spent most of their lives tapping out Latin letters on a keypad to summon up the squiggle they want on an attached screen.

I guess the Age of Handwriting is over. Being able to write legibly will soon be a niche skill, like playing the bassoon or knowing Latin. And all those hours of Penmanship in Tom Elliot's class at Far Cotton County Primary School (upstrokes light, downstrokes bold … now clean your nibs please …) were wasted. Hey ho.

Third World?     I use the expression "Third World" a lot. Last week I got into an e-discussion with a reader who tells me the term is now pretty meaningless.

I guess he's right. The term came up in the early 1950s when the U.S.A. and its allies were in strong confrontation with the U.S.S.R., communist China, and their satellites. The rest of the world felt hors de combat. A group of the cannier national leaders saw the chance to make a buck by playing off one bloc against the other. A second group, by no means exclusive of the first, saw the even more appealing opportunity to strike moral poses. Paul Johnson gave the essentials in Modern Times:

Up to the mid-1950s, however, [Nehru] was the cynosure of a new entity which progressive French journalists were already terming le tiers monde. The concept was based upon verbal prestidigitation, the supposition that by inventing new words and phrases one could change (and improve) unwelcome and intractable facts. There was the first world of the West, with its rapacious capitalism; the second world of totalitarian socialism, with its slave-camps; both with their hideous arsenals of mass-destruction. Why should there not come into existence a third world, arising like a phoenix from the ashes of empire, free, pacific, non-aligned, industrious, purged of capitalist and Stalinist vice, radiant with public virtue, today saving itself by its exertions, tomorrow the world by its example? Just as, in the nineteenth century, idealists had seen the oppressed proletariat as the repository of moral excellence — and a prospective proletarian state as Utopia — so now the very fact of a colonial past, and a non-white skin, were seen as title-deeds to international esteem. An ex-colonial state was righteous by definition. A gathering of such states would be a senate of wisdom.

Boy, the 1950s were an awful long time ago, weren't they?

Now the world has a different political shape. Colonialism is a fading memory, unless you have the misfortune to be a Tibetan, a Uighur, a Chechen, or one of the oppressed masses still groaning under the lash of British overseers in Gibraltar, St. Helena, Bermuda, or the Falkland Islands. Is China, for example, still a part of the Third World? The Economist tells us that on most indices of development, mainland China is about where Japan was in 1960. I don't think Japan was considered as belonging to the Third World back then. Ex-colonial Malaysia's doing pretty well: GDP per capita $14,700 (against U.S.A. $46,400, China $6,500). Ex-colonial Singapore is doing very well: GDP per capita $50,300.

To be sure, simple numbers like those can hide a multitude of sins. Ex-colonial Equatorial Guinea is doing well too, GDP per capita $36,100, but you don't want to live there. Even so, a lot of the Old Third World is at 1950s-Europe levels of stability and affluence, or better.

Where do you want to live? In a place with a good-sized middle class enjoying reasonable comfort, under a reliable rule of law that respects basic freedoms. If you want to call the totality of such countries the First World, it's grown some this past 50 years, but nothing like as much as well-meaning people hoped it would. Most of Sub-Saharan Africa, much of South and Southeast Asia, most of Islamia, biggish parts of Latin America, and odd patches elsewhere, are still horrible places to live.

You might say that logically, with the U.S.S.R. gone, there is no longer any Second World; but with Russia and China cozying up to each other recently, I think I'll go on saying "Third World" for a while yet.

Hurting a nation's feelings     Speaking of China, here's the ChiCom news agency Xinhua, on the latest U.S. arms sales to Taiwan:

The sale is a wrong decision, which not only undermines China's national security interests and her national unification cause, but also once again hurts the national feelings of the Chinese people.

Poor things! One point three billion sets of feelings hurt, yet again!

Doesn't anybody in the ChiCom public-relations apparatus realise how bogus and whiny this sounds? All this blustering fake indignation and assertions of hurt feelings? And who are the ChiComs to tell us what the Chinese people are feeling, anyway? Nobody elected them to be spokes-whiners for the Chinese people.

The poetry of Robert Burns used to be well-known in China, on account of Burns being one of the very few English-language poets who could fairly be described as a peasant. These lines seem not to have sunk in though:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

Since this was January, the month of Burns Night, I offer those lines to the ChiCom propaganda department as a timely reminder. They might then try getting themselves a pirate copy of this book (long banned on the Mainland).

Living in China 27 years ago, I finally got fed up with being woken every morning to loudspeakers playing "March of the Athletes," a Maoist military-band period piece. "Couldn't they at least play something different once in a while?" I grouched to my Chinese minder. "Why?" he replied. "All the people of China love this tune!" Me: "What, all of them? You sure about that? You don't think that maybe there's a Chinese person somewhere who doesn't like it? Just one, perhaps?"

This sent the poor guy into acute psychic shock. I could see him struggling to encompass the outrageous idea that there might be a Chinese person somewhere who didn't like a government-approved tune. I thought for a minute his eyeballs would start to vibrate. At last he gave up, put on his stern class-struggle face (that is, or was, an actual idiom in Chinese: jieji douzheng lian) and asserted firmly and indignantly to the contemptible imperialist lackey he was dealing with: "No! All the people of China love this tune."

And now they've all had their feelings hurt. Spare a thought for their anguish.

Aftermath of King Philip's War     And speaking of Bermuda, which I think I was there somewhere: This month I learned a historical fact I didn't know before, though it's probably one of those annoying ones everyone else but me knows, so I'll get a flood of emails mocking my ignorance.

At dinner with a lady from Bermuda, I inquired about her ancestry. She was, it turned out, Native American. So are a great many other Bermudans. These are the descendants of the defeated tribes in King Philip's War of 1675-7, shipped off to slavery in the West Indies. They still remember; though my dinner companion, a good-natured lady, seemed not to bear any grudge against the Pilgrims.

Killer English     One of the great mysteries of history is: Why do the English speak English? At the time the English (speakers of low-German dialects from Europe's North Sea coasts) showed up in the middle fifth century a.d., Britain had two languages well established: Latin, which had been the administrative language of Roman Britannia for 400 years, and Brythonic, a Celtic tongue spoken by the common people for somewhat longer. Both were wiped out by English: Latin completely, so far as everyday usage was concerned, Brythonic surviving only in the wild west of Britain, where it gradually morphed into Welsh.

Yet genetic evidence shows that the English invaders were numerically few, a mere coat of paint on the Neolithic population of Britain. (As were, in fact, the Celts who'd invaded half a millennium earlier.) And subsequent invaders — Vikings, Normans — did not do to English what English had done to Latin and Brythonic, though their numerical impact was similar to that of the English.

Nicholas Ostler, in Empires of the Word, puts it down to the great and terrible plague that ravaged Europe in the mid-sixth century. The English areas, and the Celts living under English overlords, were less affected, he argues, for social and economic reasons (e.g. fewer trade links with southern Europe).

Now here's F.W. Brownlow of Mt. Holyoke College, writing in the current (February) issue of my favorite papo-paleo-con magazine, Chronicles.

Philologists have scratched their heads over this problem, and the best explanation they can come up with is that English, for some reason, is a "killer" language, which is to say that wherever it goes, it drives out other languages. There is no apparent reason why the Anglo-Saxons — who, like the Vikings in Normandy, were a relatively small group of warriors who married the female kin of the resident proprietors whom they dispossessed — should not have adopted the language of their wives, tenants, children, and children's nurses. Instead the wives, tenants, children, and nurses adopted the Anglo-Saxons' language, in the process importing some distinctively Brythonic syntax into English, so that we now say such peculiar things — by Germanic standards — as "Did you see what she's doing to the cat?"

I don't see why there shouldn't be killer languages, just as there are killer apps, killer viruses, and killer nations. Mysterious are the ways of the human world. Let's remember, though, that killerdom eventually fades. Lotus 1-2-3 was a killer app once; viruses generate resistance; and great military empires have been won by such unlikely (from today's viewpoint) nations as Tibet, Sweden, and, well, England.

(What's that you say? I'm only plugging Chronicles because they gave a nice review to WAD? Perish the thought!)

Music to despair by     Ah, yes, WAD. You need some suitable music playing in the background while you read that wonderful book. I have just the thing.

Auschwitz sign     I see that the famous sign over the entrance to Auschwitz, stolen last month, has been recovered. Arbeit Macht Frei, says the sign: "Work makes (you) free."

What a strange thing to say over the entrance to a death camp! Presumably it was all part of the program to keep the actual nature of the Final Solution hidden from its victims until the last possible moment, to make them easier to handle. Or was it just sick humor? Primo Levi ruminated on this point in Survival in Auschwitz. It's clear, at any rate, that the cheery theme of the sign was a common one around the camps. This was especially so in the washrooms. Primo Levi:

On the opposite wall [of the washroom] an enormous white, red and black louse encamps, with the writing: "Ein laus, dein Tod" (a louse is your death), and the inspired distich:

Nach dem Abort, vor dem Essen
Hände waschen, nicht vergessen

(After the latrine, before eating, wash your hands, do not forget.)

The crack of a bullet     Irish Actress Victoria Smurfit had a narrow escape while riding in a taxi with her family in Cape Town, South Africa. Someone fired into the taxi at close range, for no apparent reason. Ms. Smurfit, on what authority I do not know, says it was a gang initiation:

A young man, wants to feel he belongs to something, tries to attach himself to a group but has to prove his mettle.

It was kill a tourist day. And we were in the way.

The local police responded with wellnigh uncontrollable apathy.

We called the police. We felt it was our civic duty to inform them that someone with a gun was roaming the main street.

"Yes, thank you," and a hang up. Well, we were interrupting celebrations I suppose.

(It was New Year's Eve.) It looks as though the South African government's promise to get crime under control before this summer's soccer World Cup has some way to go yet.

May I offer a modest suggestion to the authorities down there? Try offering every possible incentive — free accommodation, open bars — to English and Scottish soccer fans to attend the tournament. After a couple of skirmishes with them, the street hoodlums of South Africa will stay cowering in their basements till the whole thing's over.

Incidentally, I can answer one of the lady's questions with confidence:

Crack! Or pop? I can't really work out exactly which sound is correct as it happened so fast. Maybe it was a crack and a pop as the bullet entered through Charlie's window.

It was a crack. I've heard it a thousand times. No, never been in combat, but I've worked the butts at a shooting range. The butts (sorry: I feel sure this is just a Brit-English term) are trenches at the target end of the range, deep enough to stand upright in. The butts crew are in there hoisting and lowering the metal frames that carry the humongous targets used for long-distance shooting, and waving little flags above the trench-top level to communicate with the shooting end. So you're standing there in the butts and the bullets are passing over your head, three or four feet away. It's a crack! Definitely. A crack, in the butts. And now I shall leave this topic for ever.

Spelling Stalin     I mentioned on The Corner having turned up a Facebook page for Stalin, bearing the memorable legend: "Not the Yosif Vissarionovich Dzugashvili Stalin you were looking for? Search more …" How many more are there? I wondered aloud rhetorically. Well, if you drop the "Stalin," there's at least one, as a gleeful reader informed me:

What? YOU, Derb the all-knowing, don't know that there is, indeed, another Yosip Visarionovitch Djugashvili?

Well, Sir, Homer nods, you know.

He is a teenage Muscovite pianist and the great-great-grandson of the other guy. Check out the last but one picture on this link.

Of course, his very existence means that his grandfather, Evgeniy Djugashvili, called his son Vissarion so that he could later have a grandson who would be the exact namesake of his own grandfather, whom he reveres to this day …

Most instructive, Sir. Thank you. But … shouldn't that be a "Dzu," not a "Dju"? Seems to me I've always seen that last name spelt "Dzugashvili," as in the Facebook page.

I turn to Prof. Hewitt's Georgian: A Learner's Grammar, which, as faithful readers know, is never far from my elbow. The alphabet of that noble language has a letter named dzili for the "dz" sound, and a different letter, named jani, for the "dzh" sound. A few moments' research shows that Stalin's last name (I mean, before it was "Stalin") was written with the jani. "Dzhugashvili" is therefore correct, "Dzugashvili" incorrect. Cross-checking with Google, I get 44,900 hits for "dzhugashvili" vs. only 17,300 for "dzugashvili," a 72-28 split. Looks like Facebook has it wrong.

Slow day at the office there, Derb? Yup, real slow.

Publication bias     a/k/a "the file drawer effect." That's when a lot of researchers are working in a field where there is a strong incentive — money-, career-, or prestige-wise — to come up with the "right" answer. The human sciences are especially susceptible, though publication bias is not unknown in other areas too. What happens is, a study that comes up with the "right" answer gets shipped off to the learned journal for peer review; the study that doesn't, goes to the file drawer.

Here's what looks like a case, from the pharmaceutical industry. Are you feeling somewhat depressed? Go to your doctor and get a prescription antidepressant. Or, for precisely the same effect, take a couple of M&Ms:

The new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), culled the results from six antidepressant trials that did include mild and moderate cases, totaling 718 people overall. It found that antidepressants drugs were virtually no better than a placebo for people with mild or moderate depression. Only in people with very severe depression did the antidepressant effect become substantially greater than that produced by a dummy pill.

That's pretty amazing news. Antidepressants have been around since the 1950s. It's taken fifty years to figure out the darn things don't work?

Another reason the public may have gotten a skewed view of antidepressant efficacy is that drug companies have tended to publicize only their most positive studies. Until recently, some failed antidepressant trials weren't published in medical journals, or were buried deep in the literature where they were hard to find. "The clinical trials showing the least benefits for drugs compared to placebo were just not published," says Kirsch. "We had to go to the FDA and [submit a Freedom of Information Act request] to get the data."

I don't doubt that there is a medical/psychiatric condition of severe depression that can wreck people's ability to function. For most of us, though, some moderate level of unhappiness is a part of the human condition. Exercise helps, so does companionship; but the most reliable cure, in my experience (and this guy's), is hard work.

Times of the signs     Human affairs have a fractal quality. They sprout and spawn, twisting and inverting endlessly, till what was once a plain lawn looks like tropical rain forest.

In New York State, for example, there were once traffic lights. When the light was red, you stopped until it turned green.

Such simplicity could not be allowed to stand. The state legislature passed a law permitting right turns on a red light (after first coming to a stop, of course), except in New York City.

That was soon found to need further refinement. Signs sprang up at traffic-lighted intersections saying No Turn on Red. So now you could do the right turn only outside New York City and where there wasn't a sign. Half the time of course you forgot to notice whether there was a sign or not, so you ended up either (a) chancing the turn and getting a ticket, or (b) sitting waiting for the light to change while more attentive drivers sat in the lane behind you sounding their horns and yelling insults about your mother.

Even that has now proved insufficiently fractal for our legislators. The other day I actually did notice a sign saying No Turn on Red. I obediently stopped at the light and waited for it to change. A car came up behind me and started sounding his horn. I made "Wha?" gestures as best I could through the back window. There's a sign! I saw it! He was mad, though, yelling soundlessly at me and working his horn. I remained impregnable in my righteousness, ignoring him. When the light changed, I cruised forward carefully round the corner. He soon passed me, leaning over across his passenger seat, apparently desirous to draw my attention to something on his right middle finger.

Later that day I came again to the same light. Now I saw that the No Turn on Red sign had some small print: Mon.-Fri. 9:00am-6:00pm. This was a Saturday.

Traffic researchers have made a robust case for doing away with traffic lights altogether, and most traffic signs too. There is not the faintest probability their views will prevail. Ever-deepening complexity is a law of nature, though how it squares with the Principle of Entropy Increase, I don't know.

The 69,676 pages in last year's Federal Register? See above. Your tax forms? See above. Your next real-estate transaction? See above …

Math Corner     The solution to last month's puzzle is here.

Here's one from the International Math Olympiad last year.

Suppose that s1, s2, s3, … is a strictly increasing sequence of positive integers such that the subsequences
ss1, ss2, ss3, … and ss1+1, ss2+1, ss3+1, …
are both arithmetic progressions. Prove that the sequence s1, s2, s3, … is itself an arithmetic progression.